500 Years of African Presence in Florida: From the Congo to Florida

The Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida is working together with the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA Tervuren) to display and travel the first exhibition in the United States to deeply explore the legacy of Kongo culture. Kongo across the Waters, opening first at the Harn Museum on October 22, 2013, will present more than 160 works of historic and contemporary art and artifacts—including loans from the Royal Museum for Central Africa that have never been on display in the United States and several never before exhibited archaeological discoveries—spanning five centuries from the 16th century when Kongo first emerged as a major Atlantic presence, to the present day. Accompanying the exhibition are a richly-illustrated book and international conference documenting and analyzing milestones in the history of African presence in North America.

Kongo across the Waters focuses on an African culture with considerable historical depth, first documented at the end of the fifteenth century in and around the kingdom of Kongo in West Central Africa. Through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Kongo contributed importantly to the formation of African American cultures. On both sides of the Atlantic, Kongo culture responded to different opportunities and pressures and produced remarkable objects of art that bear the imprint of their time. Today in Africa, Europe and the United States contemporary artists continue to be inspired by Kongo art and aesthetics.

Kongo across the Waters was developed to highlight a milestone in the history of African presence in North America and provide an important complement to Viva Florida 500, a program commemorating 500 years of European presence in Florida. The Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon who arrived on La Florida in April 1513 counted among his crew members two free African men. This means that the first Europeans and the first Africans in North America arrived simultaneously, a fact of great historical and symbolic significance.
Kongo across the Waters is co-organized by the University of Florida’s Harn Museum of Art and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, and made possible by the AEC Trust, Dr. Madelyn M. Lockhart, Christie’s, UF Office of the Provost, UF International Center, UF Office of Research, UF School of Art and Art History, UF Center for African Studies, the C. Frederick and Aase B. Thompson Foundation, Hyatt and Cici Brown, William and Hazel Hough, Robert and Janet Kemerait, Nella Taylor, Drs. Israel and Michaela Samuelly, Robert Haiman, Mary Kilgour, anonymous donors, and with additional support from the Harn Program Endowment and the Londono Family Endowment. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

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